Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death256
Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death256
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Introducing Santa Muerte, the Skeletal Lady of Mexico
Who Is Santa Muerte?
Santa Muerte, or "Holy Death" in Spanish, is a folk saint who is believed to be the feminine embodiment of death. Her modern form comes to us from Mexico, where she is styled as a female Grim Reaper figure. She is often depicted as a skeleton wearing a long robe and carrying a scythe, but with added feminine features such as jewelry, flowers, and flowing hair. Her devotees describe her as a warm, friendly, and convivial spirit who is delighted by the antics of the living and who enjoys interacting with them.
Santa Muerte has power over everything that can be touched by death and decay, which gives her an incredibly broad scope of influence. Since life flowers before it fades, Santa Muerte cures illnesses and addiction. Since fortunes can quickly change, she showers her devotees with money and prosperity and untangles legal problems. She also provides ironclad protection from harm, cutting short with her scythe the curses and maledictions of others. Because death touches on everything, her knowledge and wisdom are unparalleled. She empowers her devotees to deepen their understanding and strengthen their creativity; like necessity, mortality is the mother of invention. Because death touches everyone, she may also throw open the doors of social influence as well as attract a wide variety of lovers. Santa Muerte holds the keys to the underworld as well as other planar realms, and she may unlock their gates to allow communication with spirits of the dead as well as other entities. Since death and dying both have the power to transform your consciousness, Santa Muerte is also a powerful patron spirit of magic. She may assist in shaping and empowering the consciousness of devotees, deepening their wisdom, strengthening their willpower, and expanding their awareness. These three things translate to increased magical power, making Santa Muerte the natural ally of both witches and magicians.
Even this is not an exhaustive list of Santa Muerte's broad portfolio of powers. Because she is the face of death incarnate, her capacity to act is limited only by her devotees' capacity to ask. It is deeply ingrained within many of us to openly deny what we really want because we are afraid of being viewed as greedy, sinful, or cynical.
For example, many people ask spirits for help with winning money in the lottery. Often these requests are filled with promises to use the winnings to help the less fortunate, such as giving large sums of money to charity. If this is done honestly as a form of spiritual bribery, it can be quite effective. Some spirits respond well to being paid for their services, such as with charitable donations made publicly in their name. However, making such promises to simply mask your greed will actually have two different effects. First, spirits tend not to respond well to deception. Not only is being deceptive itself very rude, but you are also telling the spirits that you think they are stupid enough to be deceived. Since no one likes being insulted, spirits will respond poorly — if at all.
Second, making such promises also weakens the power of your request, since you are wasting time and energy trying to convince a spirit that you truly desire to donate millions to charity when actually you don't. Since this attempt will fail anyway, making these kinds of false promises is an ultimately self-defeating practice. Many people try these tactics because we believe that friendly and helpful spirits will not help a person whose desire to win the lottery is rooted in greed, as greed is thought to be destructive and evil. The kind of spirit that would fulfill such a request is often not the kind of spirit that many people would choose to ask for help.
Santa Muerte is notable because she is not concerned with the underlying motivations driving the requests of her devotees. She assigns no particular moral weight to any kind of request, because, to death, everything is a zero-sum game. Whether you dedicate your lottery winnings to feeding the homeless or to retiring to a beach in Fiji, you will still die in the end. Therefore, Santa Muerte is far more likely to respond to a greedy but heartfelt request than one that is diluted by fake feelings of altruism. Because she is so nonjudgmental, her willingness to intervene is limited only by her devotees' willingness to ask for her help. Because she assigns no moral weight to any kind of request, her response also extends to using her power to harm other people. This has led to Santa Muerte's condemnation by religious and civil authorities and to her followers often being considered suspect.
It is the destructive side of Santa Muerte that has helped her garner so much attention in recent years. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation labels Santa Muerte as a "narco-saint" that is idolized by drug traffickers; it blames her cults for shocking acts of violence and ritual slayings committed on both sides of the US–Mexico border. Cults dedicated to Santa Muerte frequently operate within drug cartels because it is believed that she will grant their members supernatural protection and aid. The media often sensationalizes stories of her statues found in graveyards and at roadsides, apparently left there as components of spells designed to harm specific targets. Her veneration is not condoned by the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic Church condemns Santa Muerte as a Satanic figure.
To the police, the appearance of Santa Muerte at a crime scene presents a dark omen indeed. During an interview with a law enforcement official from New Mexico, I was told about a local drug bust conducted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. While raiding a cartel compound, the agents found an entire room turned into a temple dedicated to the worship of Santa Muerte. The main feature of the temple was a Santa Muerte "statue" made out of a female skeleton wearing an elaborate black silk wedding dress. The official explained to me the primary reason that authorities fear Santa Muerte cults and thus specifically target them for eradication. It's not that they fear supernatural repercussions. What they fear is how reckless and violent drug traffickers can become when they believe they have supernatural protection. Such a criminal is incredibly dangerous and capable of anything. In an attempt to curb cartel violence, the Mexican military specifically targets Santa Muerte shrines for demolition in an attempt to demoralize drug cartel members. Even if the authorities do not believe in Santa Muerte, they are forced to respect her power.
Santa Muerte's official condemnation has done little to slow her meteoric rise in popularity. Interest in Santa Muerte has exploded in recent years, fueled by increased immigration and sensationalized media reports linking her to the activities of drug trafficking cartels. This increased exposure has helped Santa Muerte successfully transition from being a mere folk saint to being a virtual pop culture icon.
For example, in the popular television series Breaking Bad, the season three episode "No Más" opens with two cartel assassins belly-crawling through a dusty village to pray at a Santa Muerte shrine. She has also been featured in the popular television series American Horror Story, Criminal Minds, and Dexter, among others. The character of La Muerte in The Book of Life, a 2014 movie, appears to be based on her.
Her image adorns virtually every kind of product imaginable, from ashtrays to gun grips to wall hangings, and the market is enormous. Since the emergence of her first public shrine at Tepito, Mexico, in 2001, the number of Santa Muerte devotees in the world has increased dramatically, currently numbering between ten and twelve million worldwide. In fact, belief in Santa Muerte is the fastest-growing new religious movement emerging in the world today.
Where Does Santa Muerte Come From?
The veneration of Santa Muerte comes to us from Mexico, where she is publicly celebrated as the patron saint of the Day of the Dead. Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country. Catholics believe in a wide variety of saints. Saints are spiritual personalities who are believed to have an especially close relationship with God. Catholics pray to saints because they can use this special relationship to intercede in the lives of people. The Catholic Church recognizes over 1,500 official saints with new ones canonized annually. To become a saint, a deceased person must meet certain criteria, such as performing a number of miracles that can be directly attributed to him or her. Only after a lengthy investigation by a Vatican commission may a person be canonized and added to the official roll of Catholic saints.
However, the Catholic Church does not accept all saints. There are many saints whose ability to perform miracles is acclaimed by popular belief, but they have not been vetted by a Vatican commission. These kinds of saints are called "folk saints." Despite their unofficial status, the Catholic Church tends to tolerate their veneration alongside the veneration of the official Catholic patrons.
One such example is the folk saint La Difunta Correa ("the Deceased Correa"), who enjoys a cult over two hundred thousand members strong in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. La Difunta Correa is believed to be the spirit of a woman who took her infant child on a mission to rescue her husband in the 1840s; however, she became lost in the desert and died of thirst before she could reach him. Eventually, some ranchers found her body and discovered that her baby was still alive because he was able to feed from her eternally full breast. Considering this to be a miracle, the ranchers buried her body and told many other people about it. Soon La Difunta Correa's gravesite became a shrine. Today she is venerated as a patron saint of cattle drivers, travelers, and small children. Her devotees bring her gifts of water to slake her eternal thirst. La Difunta Correa is classified as a folk saint because she is not recognized by the Catholic Church, despite the popularity of her cult.
Santa Muerte is also venerated as a folk saint. Because death is the great equalizer, Santa Muerte is the patron saint of marginalized people who live on the fringes of society, many of whom suffer from rejection by the mainstream culture. These people include not only the working poor, but also criminals, drug addicts, gay people, prostitutes, single mothers, the homeless, and the mentally ill. She is also often considered the patron saint of people who work at night, such as taxi drivers, bartenders, exotic dancers, and after-hours cleaning and maintenance staff. These types of workers are at higher risk for accidents, assaults, robberies, and all types of violent death specifically because they work at night. Santa Muerte is often called Senora de la Noche (Spanish, "Lady of the Night") because believers hope that she will protect them from these types of calamities. Since people who live on the fringes of society often feel that they have nowhere else to turn, Santa Muerte is sometimes also called the Saint of Last Resort.
Unlike La Difunta Correa, however, Santa Muerte does not enjoy the passive acceptance of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church outright condemns veneration of Santa Muerte as a Satanic practice. The Catholic Church already has several official saints that are devoted to death, such as Saint Margaret of Antioch and Saint Michael, so there is no need for Santa Muerte to fulfill that role.
Another thing that bars Santa Muerte from being tolerated is that some of her devotees engage in illegal activities and practice black magic. Since Santa Muerte is the patron saint of criminals and those who are at risk of nighttime violence, many drug traffickers hail her as their personal patron and use spells and rituals to ensure their protection and success. While similar activity is sometimes performed in the name of Saint Jude, who is the patron saint of lost causes, this type of activity is frowned on at best and often condemned as Satanic. The criminal behavior of some of Santa Muerte's devotees makes it difficult for her cult to gain the acceptance and tolerance that the cults of other folk saints enjoy.
As drug-related violence continues to escalate on both sides of the US–Mexico border, Santa Muerte cults associated with the drug trafficking cartels are blamed for murders allegedly conducted in order to curry her favor. Some of her cults have even been accused of engaging in ritual cannibalism! This behavior has caused Santa Muerte to become inextricably linked in the minds of many with violent slayings conducted to fuel black magic, leading to her condemnation as a Satanic figure. Despite the fact that these devotees would likely describe themselves as devout Catholics and Santa Muerte herself as being in league with God, these types of activities are understandably repulsive to the Catholic Church. Since the Catholic Church has no need to add an additional saint to its official register, especially one who is associated with violent criminals who practice black magic, the Catholic Church continues to denounce Santa Muerte as a Satanic figure.
Traditionally, veneration of Santa Muerte has been a private practice, partially because of condemnation by civil and religious authorities and partially because of the negative connotations associated with her worship. Because of the strong Catholic influence, Mexico also has strong cultural taboos against using witchcraft, especially for malign purposes. People who use witchcraft risk social ostracism or worse, as it is often equated with malevolence. Many perceive turning to the power of Death itself for aid as an act of desperation.
The Mexican government, like the Catholic Church, tends to tolerate the veneration of folk saints. There is even one folk saint, El Niño Fidencio, whose veneration has spawned its own offshoot religion called the Fidencista Christian Church with its own liturgy and church hierarchy. This church was founded in 1993, and its membership continues to grow to this day. Santa Muerte enjoys no such unofficial tolerance, however. Her first public shrine did not open until 2001 in Tepito, Mexico. The Mexican government continues to refuse to recognize the movement as an official religion, citing concerns that doing so would only legitimize veneration of Santa Muerte in the eyes of the drug cartels. Thus, there is no "official" Santa Muerte cult or religion with a standardized body of prayers or ritual practice.
Although the Catholic Church has condemned the veneration of Santa Muerte, this has not prevented her from becoming the unofficial patron saint of the annual Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a national holiday when the souls of the dead are thought to return to enjoy the pleasures of life as well as the closeness of family and friends. Rather than a somber occasion, the Day of the Dead is intended to be a bright and jubilant one. People gather to celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones and the lives that they lived. This celebration is not only believed to strengthen the bonds of family but is also an opportunity to ask the dead for their assistance and protection. Cleaning and tending graves is a common activity as well, with many people leaving flowers, food, and other gifts for the dead to enjoy.
In many Catholic countries during religious festivals, the icons of cherished saints are removed from their shrines and paraded around streets and public squares so that they receive the adoration of the faithful. Because Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country and Santa Muerte is hailed as a folk saint, she enjoys the same treatment that the other saints receive. The Day of the Dead is held on November 2, which coincides with All Souls' Day — a Catholic religious holiday when the faithful pray for the souls of their dearly departed dead. On the Day of the Dead, the Saint of Death makes her celebrated public appearance. Her statues are arrayed in richly embroidered robes and covered with garlands of flowers before being taken out of their shrines and paraded throughout town. Many such processions end in the local graveyard, often with much singing and dancing.
The Day of the Dead celebration is rooted in a much older religious festival that was celebrated by the Aztecs. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the Aztecs dominated the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs celebrated several of their gods of death and sacrifice during their end-of-year harvest festivals. They also celebrated the memories of their own dead, often equating butterflies or moths with the returning souls of family and friends. One deity celebrated during these festivals was the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of Mictlan.
Excerpted from "Santa Muerte"
Copyright © 2017 Tracey Rollin.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Introducing Santa Muerte, the Skeletal Lady of Mexico,
2. The Aztec Roots of Santa Muerte,
3. The Sainthood of Death,
4. Death's Feminine Ways,
5. The Seven Colors of Santa Muerte,
6. Preparing Your Ritual Space and Tools,
7. The Rosary of Santa Muerte,
8. The Novena of Santa Muerte,
9. Niña Blanca, Sweet Sister Death,
10. Niña Violeta, the Royal Queen,
11. Niña Azul, the Gracious One,
12. Niña Dorada, Lucky Lady Death,
13. Niña Roja, the Queen of Passion,
14. Niña Verde, the Just Judge,
15. Niña Negra, the Mother of Tears,
16. A Few Last Words,
Glossary of Terms,
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